The Urban Legacy of Jack Layton

Michael Dudley's picture
On Monday, August 22nd, the leader of Canada's New Democratic Party, Jack Layton, succumbed to cancer and passed away, mere months after leading his left-leaning party to unprecedented electoral success as the official opposition to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Since then, the public expressions of loss, and the celebration of his life, have been extraordinary: impromptu memorials have sprung up in cities across Canada, especially in Toronto where he sat as a city councilor for almost 20 years before moving to federal politics. Most significantly, he is being granted a state funeral, an unheard-of honour for an opposition party leader. 

Jack Layton's leadership of the New Democratic Party (NDP) was such that the party's rapid achievements were widely attributed to him, his passionate commitment to social justice and the environment, his ability to connect different interests and to his charming personality.

Clearly – and rare for a politician in any country or context – Jack Layton was admired and loved, even by those who disagreed with his views.

The NDP under his leadership showed great leadership in the areas of the environment and urban issues, a platform rivaled only by the Green Party. That this is so is owed in no small way to his tenure as a city councilor.   

Between 1982 and 2003, he served alternately as a councilor for Toronto and Metro Toronto. During those years he chaired many key committees dedicated to the environment. He established the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, which is, even after two decades, the only municipal agency in the world dedicated to combating climate change by promoting energy efficiency retrofits and alternative energy, and has included the construction of a huge wind turbine.

He also sat on the city's sustainability roundtable and chaired the city's cycling committee. His commitment to cycling was legendary: following a winter night's meeting, he offered a fellow councilor a lift home, which she accepted – only to learn that he meant on the back of his tandem bicycle. His dedication to bicycles has also been featured in tributes following his death.  

He campaigned to tear down Gardiner expressway, a goal partially met in 2001, when the eastern hub was removed, leading to opportunities for waterfront renewal.Perhaps most famously, he fought to keep Toronto from shipping its garbage to a northern Ontario mine, which he largely achieved via a city council screening the Simpsons episode Trash of the Titans.

Layton was particularly passionate about Canada's housing crisis. In 2000 he published his book Homelessness, which condemned the lack of a national housing policy in Canada and the deplorable shifting of responsibility for housing between levels of government. He was the subject of some controversy over this issue during the 2004 federal election campaign when he accused then-Prime Minister Paul Martin of contributing to the deaths of homeless people through government inaction.

His remarkable leadership on these and other urban issues led to his election in 2001 as President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), in which capacity he began to campaign for a "new deal" for cities, which are far more constrained than their American counterparts in their ability to finance their operations. As a result of his efforts, FCM's emergent urban agenda would lead to the federal government to institute in 2007 the Gas Tax Fund, which has provided Canadian municipalities with stable funding for infrastructure, public transit and water and waste projects.

Layton was acutely aware, however, of how fragile these successes were: speaking to the FCM this past June, he warned that the austerity measures being instituted by the Harper Government would be paid for on the backs of Canadian cities:

I know that some people think Ottawa's temporary stimulus largely tackled the $123-billion dollar infrastructure deficit. Clearly, we have some public education to do here - and quickly. Because the job isn't done - not even close. Public housing, arenas, bridges, and water systems are still crumbling. Community policing and public transit need urgent attention. And 40 per cent of federal investments to municipalties are set to expire during this new government's mandate. [The June 3rd] throne speech was gravely disappointing for municipalities. Barely a word about the continuing role Ottawa can play in the life of our cities and communities. Not a word committing to develop a long-term infrastructure renewal plan with municipalities as frontline partners And in this globalized 21st century, building a stronger Canada means building more competitive cities & communities. With world class infrastructure. Effective settlement services. Exceptional learning opportunities. And a compelling quality of life. That won't happen unless municipalities have a seat at the table in Ottawa - as partners with other orders of government.

Layton's powerful commitment to Canada's cities – especially Toronto -- is being reflected in calls to name some urban amenity after him – like a public space or bicycle commuting route.

As a parting gesture mere days before he died, Layton composed a letter to Canadians (which has been widely reprinted on the Web and shared on Facebook) in which he exhorted his followers not to give up on their vision for a more progressive Canada under a Conservative majority government:

Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world's environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don't let them tell you it can't be done.

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world.

Jack Layton's leadership made clear linkages between the fate of Canada's cities and its well-being as a country, something that has largely escaped Canada's political establishment. He will be profoundly missed; yet the inspiration that so many are taking from his life and career may hopefully reignite efforts to help realize the country -- and cities -- he tried to build.    






Michael Dudley is the Indigenous and Urban Services Librarian at the University of Winnipeg.


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